The Oilers go for the Cup

Colin MacKenzie May 16 1983

The Oilers go for the Cup

Colin MacKenzie May 16 1983

The Oilers go for the Cup


Colin MacKenzie

In most cities with professional sports teams, fans have grown old waiting for a winner. But Edmonton, which shares the icy 54th parallel with Minsk and whose Eskimos of the Canadian Football League routinely win the Grey Cup, may be on the verge of producing its second championship team. Even if the skilful Oilers fail to win the Stanley Cup playoffs, it is clear that a hockey dynasty is in the making.

All the ingredients are in place. Led by the magical Wayne Gretzky, the planet’s best hockey player, the Oilers have shattered virtually every National Hockey League scoring record in the past two years. But when the team takes to the ice this week for the first game of the Stanley Cup finals against the New York Islanders, it will feature more than Gretzky and goal scoring. After only four years in the NHL, the Oilers have discovered maturity and defence.

They have matured after a disappointing finish last year and they have the burning desire to win. Above all, the sum now adds up to more than just Wayne Gretzky. The result is a complete hockey team which plays Canada’s national sport with an élan and a discipline unmatched outside Moscow. And even better, from a fan’s point of view, the sports world has thrown up one of its twists of perfect irony. The Oilers face the New York Islanders, three times the Stanley Cup champions and questing for their fourth win, the hallmark of a true dynasty. After a season of mediocre play—the Islanders collected 96 points, low by their standards—the team of steady and efficient veterans wants to redeem its year and, more important, stamp itself as a side equal to the great postwar teams. To that end, the Islanders have played their best hockey of the year in the past month. Whatever the eventual outcome,

Canadians can settle in for the most entertaining Stanley Cup final in at least a decade.

The Oilers have been this country’s most prominent hockey club for reasons other than Gretzky. Chief among these is Peter Pocklington, the flamboyant entrepreneur-turned-politician who is hoping to parlay his ownership of the team and its accomplishments into the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative party. Pocklington’s cam-

paign colors just happen to match the Oilers’ blue and orange, and several team members will be on hand in Ottawa next month to add lustre to their boss’s political efforts. “The Oilers are going to help me win it,” said Pocklington. “Right now I’m in fourth place. I think the Oiler angle will get me into third. Name me a better marketing vehicle than Gretzky and his hockey club in the Stanley Cup final.”

Pocklington, who bought the team in 1977, revels in the Oilers’ successes, but he leaves the hockey decisions to his hockey people. Essentially that means that Glen Sather, 39, has a free hand as general manager and coach. Sather

ground out nine seasons as a defenceman with six teams. But his drive and intelligence exceeded his athletic ability. In fact, Sather has assembled a swift-skating, European-style team which would not even have room for the Glen Sather of 15 years ago on its bench.

The amazing Oiler story began with Wayne Gretzky. In 1978 he was a 17year-old struggling with the doomed Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey

Association. Racer owner Nelson Skalbania sold Gretzky to Pocklington of the Oilers in a complicated deal that ultimately saw Pocklington pay $400,000. That June, astute scouting launched a round of acquisitions that eventually transformed the Oilers into a well-rounded team. At 22, Gretzky already claims virtually every scoring record in the league. His tale by now is well-worn: the long days in Brantford, Ont., shooting pucks on the driveway; a goal-scoring champ at age 10; the doubts every stride of the way about being too small, too weak, and too slow to move to the next level of competition. But so far Gretzky has met and mas-

tered every challenge. Last season for the first time it was the NHL scoring title. This season he got two goals as the Oilers thrashed the Soviets 4-3. Gretzky also dominated the conference all-star game with four goals in the final period mainly, as he put it, because “I hadn’t done well before.”

Gretzky seems to thrive on adversity. “I think I prepare a lot more when there’s been criticism about something I’ve done,” he said. “I don’t know what makes me like that,” he added without finishing the thought, “but when somebody says I can’t. ...” The single most unsettling aspect about the start of this year’s Stanley Cup round for the Oilers’ opponents is that Wayne Gretzky and his mates— unlike last season—really want the Cup.

Technical explanations

abound about Gretzky’s greatness. His excellent peripheral vision literally allows him to see more than most players. Neurologists speculate that world-class athletes like Gretzky actually freeze time in their mind, allowing them to react more quickly and better than lesser mortals. When Gretzky collects the puck at centre ice and scuttles toward the opposing blue line in his distinctive crouch, what often follows looks like pure magic. Opposing players, frequently stars in their own right, suddenly become clumsy industrial league oafs as the 170-lb. blond wisp of a boy drops his shoulder, slides the puck through their legs and darts behind them to pick it up again.

His passes to teammates are feathery and guided as if by radar. Gretzky’s most unnerving feature is that he holds onto the puck for so long. With opponents in hot and increasingly tangled pursuit, he moves into the attacking zone, around the net, out to the slot and back into the corner, still with the puck on his curved Titan stick. As the Great One zigs and zags, a hush descends on the arena. The result is almost invariably a deadly scoring opportunity, either by Gretzky or one of his increasingly prominent teammates.

The complete cast has made the Oilers what they are today. “One forward can’t win the Stanley Cup,” Gretzky observed. “If one guy could, Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull would have won a lot more Stanley Cups. No team wins the Stanley Cup without top, top goaltending. And in the playoffs you win as a team and lose as a team.” That

assembling of talent, which takes achingly long in other cities and not at all in some, came swiftly to the Oilers. This was largely because of the canny sense for hockey talent that chief scout Barry Fraser possesses. Fraser, who even now is off prowling the rinks of Europe as the Oilers strive for the pinnacle at home, was treasurer of the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League and a former scout of the defunct World Hockey Association.

Team players call him “Elvis,” because of his 1950s hairstyle, but there is nothing old-fashioned about the way Fraser works at his trade. He has made so few miscues since he joined the

Oilers that he is regarded as one of the NHL’s top talent finders. Said Sather: “We’ve had arguments over players, but I act as the devil’s advocate. I ask Barry a lot of questions and make sure he’s 100 per cent right. Then I go with him.” Sather reckons that if 60 per cent of the choices work, then Fraser has done his job. “My job,” said the scout, in turn, “is to stick my neck out.”

Fraser, the talent bloodhound, has produced consistently excellent draft picks. Only three players—including

Gretzky—were with the team in the WHA. The rest were drafted, acquired in trades or signed as free agents. In all, they are a collection of talented individuals, some of whom have a legitimate claim to all-star status themselves, but who are doomed to be overshadowed by their precocious colleague. Paul Coffey, Charlie Huddy and Kevin Lowe are among the NHL’s best defencemen; Mark Messier is probably the league’s finest left winger, while Jari Kurri and Glen Anderson are as adept on rightwing as Pocklington. Meanwhile, in goal, Andy Moog, a 23-year-old Penticton, B.C., native whose father was a goalie on the 1955 world champion Vees, has been brilliant through the playoffs after an ordinary season.

The team that now carries the Edmonton colors has been largely intact only since the beginning of the 1980-81 season. After barely scrambling into the playoffs three years ago, they stunned the then-mighty Montreal Canadiens in the opening round, ejecting them in three straight games on the strength of Moog’s inspired goaltending. After the New York Islanders disposed of the western upstarts in six games, New York captain Denis Potvin declared prophetically in May, 1981: “They’re going to have their years like we had, when they play well in the season and bomb in the playoffs. They’re going to have to grow.” But the impatient young Oilers were not listening. Last season they frolicked through the regular play, scoring a record 417 goals and finishing in second place in the league. The world was their oyster. Wayne

1 Gretzky was mobbed in every o NHL city as he broke Maurice z Richard’s 37-year-old mark of 50 z goals in 50 games and then set § out after Phil Esposito’s record

of 76 goals in a season, which he

2 topped handily with 92.

When the 1982 playoffs

opened and the lowly Los Angeles Kings faced the Oilers in the first round, the boys from Edmonton skated onto the ice convinced that they were God’s gift to the NHL. The team’s childish antics—they booed and jeered the Los Angeles power play from the Oiler bench—backfired. The Oilers blew a 5-0 lead in the third game and then lost the series in five games. The outcome was ignominious enough, but for the players the summer was worse. Edmonton may be Canada’s sixth-largest city with a metropolitan population of almost 700,000, but there was no place for an Oiler to hide in the

summer of 1982. “Nobody remembered the season,” mourned Messier. “All they remembered was what happened to us in the playoffs.” The Eskimos could have explained it all. The abuse the football players endured in 1977 when they lost the Grey Cup game 41-6 helped mightily to make them winners ever since. “We play in a very hockeyminded city,” says Gretzky. “There’s so much pressure from the media and fans. This city doesn’t know what losing is all about.”

Coach Sather learned some lessons along with his players. Billy Harris, the assistant coach who was dumped last summer, was typically frank: “Last

year the Oilers were eliminated because they were antagonistic toward opponents, officials and referees. The team’s behavior was a reflection of Sather’s personality. I think he has to change some of his ways, because when a coach is antagonistic and arrogant, then the players have a green light to behave the same way. And when you antagonize, you bring out the best in your opponent.” That sort of comment cost Harris his job, but defenceman Lowe, for one, did not disagree. “We have to be a little

more sensible about our attitude and not get carried away with it,” said Lowe at training camp last fall. “Billy Harris pointed it out and he was right in saying what he did. We have tried to pattern ourselves after the Islanders in a lot of ways. The Islanders don’t rub other teams’ noses in it. We have to grow out of it and we have had all summer to drive that fact home. We were a good team, but we weren’t too smart.”

Despite the brave words and honorable intentions, there was little sign for two-thirds of this season that the team had changed at all. True, Sather relied less on Gretzky and the team did less yelling at the officials. Otherwise, how-

ever, the team’s performance was depressingly similar. It scored goals by the bushel—the Oilers ended up breaking their own record with 424 goals in the 80-game season. The Oilers won, but not consistently. Gretzky declared that the team had to shape up. After a 10-7 victory in Pittsburgh, the Oilers returned home on Feb. 27 to face the Winnipeg Jets. The Oilers not only won, but, with Andy Moog in goal, they scored a 3-0 shutout. It had been 279 games and 1,176 days since the Oilers

had blanked a rival. “I said ‘This is the game,’ ” Gretzky recalled. “I mean, let’s face it, we won a game 10-7 in Pittsburgh. That’s ridiculous. The time had come for this team to get it together in our own end. It wasn’t funny anymore.” Gretzky was serious in his pregame call for a shutout, says defenceman Don Jackson, “but I suppose everybody could tell that when he started to show up in our defensive corner.”

It was indeed a change for the league’s top scorer—but it was not the only one this year. The principal difference has been that the hockey world has grown accustomed to Wayne Gretzky. Last year he was in the midst of a media

whirlwind as he completed his recordbreaking spree. This year the fan adulation has not moderated, but his arrival in town is no longer automatically front-page news. In addition to the drop in interview requests and demands for personal appearances, Gretzky has also learned to say no. In the past, he notes, “I would always say, ‘Yeah, sure. Yeah, yeah, sure.’ ” While he did not become a recluse this year, he was not always so sure. The personable young man from Brantford remained in the public eye,

but it no longer exhausted him. Nonetheless, Gretzky’s commercial bandwagon continued to roll on. There is now a range of Wayne Gretzky items, from bedspreads to cereal. With his estimated $750,000 salary and business interests, Gretzky earns roughly $1.5 million per year.

The Oiler organization has also directly benefited. Long before the team became the only Canadian-based entry in the Stanley Cup finals, its following had spread across the country. Oiler crests and other memorabilia—there are more than 200 items bearing the

Oiler logo—are outselling the products of the Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs combined. “Suppliers can’t keep up with the demand for Oiler items,” enthused Dan Fahey, director of Oiler properties. Added Jerry Sabourin, of Grant Emblems, which manufactures NHL team crests for hockey jerseys, “For every Oiler crest that goes out, there’s only one from the other teams in the NHL that we’re sending out right now.” An indication of the team’s popularity is Sabourin’s observation that last year more than 90 per cent of the

requests were generated because of Gretzky. Now, he says, the Oilers as a team produce about 40 per cent of the business.

The amazing Number 99 continued his artistry on ice this season, but he did not match last year’s production, going from 212 points to 196. It was still enough for Gretzky to end up 72 points ahead of Peter Statsny of the Quebec Nordiques, his nearest rival in the scoring race. One reason for the drop was that Sather relied less on Gretzky. Said Gretzky: “I think I averaged about 19 minutes per game this year. Last year I averaged about 26. I guess that works out to about five fewer shifts a game.

He added in his defence, “you could make a case that I scored more points per minute this year than I did last year.”

Former assistant coach Billy Harris applauds from the sidelines and claims a credit. “Some of the things I said last year cost me my job, but I honestly believe some of the things I said resulted in significant corrections. It’s obvious the team has matured, and I think the key is that the coach matured. I think the coach spent a lot of time in the off-season analysing his personality

and analysing his coaching.” Harris continued, “Sather didn’t used to believe in four lines.” Now, Edmonton is one of the few teams in the league to do so. Said Harris: “He has Wayne

Gretzky playing on the first minute of power plays now and then he throws the other line out. He has everybody involved, whether they’re playing 28 minutes or 28 seconds. You have to give the man credit. I’ve seen a lot of coaches who would never consider changing. The fact of the matter is that Glen Sather is a much more intelligent coach than [he was] last year.” Sather’s only retort is that people who once questioned his coaching “are begin-

ning to look like fools.”

Sather did not say if he includes Winnipeg Jets General Manager John Ferguson in the group of detractors. But through the crystal lens of hindsight, Ferguson’s remarks before the opening playoff round no longer sparkle. “The Oilers have a lot of weaknesses, major weaknesses—especially on defence,” said the former Montreal Canadiens’ enforcer. “They’re far from being a complete hockey team. And, besides, the Oilers have never won anything, including their days in the World Hockey As-

sociation.” Three games later, with the Jets bobbing in their wake, the Oilers finally expunged the ghost of Los Angeles and moved on to play Calgary for the first all-Alberta professional hockey playoff matchup since 1962. When the cheering stopped, the Oilers had won four games to one and scored 35 goals, for a playoff record in any series. “As a team it’s unbelievable how they’ve matured defensively,” said Calgary defenceman Paul Reinhart, just before he was dispatched to Team Canada in Germany. “I’ve never seen that sort of team defence with them before.”

And the Oilers were getting better. Against the Chicago Black Hawks, a bruising, high-scoring squad with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations of its own, the Oilers had demonstrated their distinctive championship style and a newfound taste for the jugular. The Oilers won the first two games 8-4 and 8-2 before the usual sellout crowd of 17,498 faithful and increasingly exuberant fans at Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum. “I’m

ashamed,” raged Chicago coach Orval Tessier after the first game, in which the Oilers produced the most overpowering second period of playoff hockey that has been seen in decades. The Oilers fired 21 shots at beleaguered Chicago goaltender Tony Esposito, and scored four times.

Chicago had only two shots on Moog. Tessier was even unhappier the next night after the poised Oilers administered an 8-2 humiliation.

“We should put in a call to the Mayo Clinic for 18 heart transplants,” growled the 49-year-old Orval, who is expected to be named coach of the year for turning the Hawks into contenders.

The final hurdle in the Oilers’ fight for credibility came in game three in raucous Chicago Stadium, for years the least favorite rink for visiting NHL teams. After going ahead 2-0, the Oilers let the Black Hawks tie the game in the third period. But Edmonton came back to win it on Glenn Anderson’s goal late in the game. “We didn’t panic,” said Gretzky, recalling a word that still haunts most Oilers. “They threw their best punch, and we took it.” For goal-

tender Moog, the third game was a rite of passage. “I told myself before the game that I could be the difference, coming into this building.” And he was—in the greatest performance since his conquest over Montreal two years ago. But things had changed for Moog: “That was all emotion. Everything I did then was based on emotion. I think it was the same for the team as a whole. It’s different now. I can’t afford to play on emotion every night and neither can this hockey club.”

The fourth game against Chicago was a 6-3 formality, and the Oilers settled back to await the victor in the BostonNew York series. In the process, they

left behind some new believers in Chicago. “We heard how cocky they were supposed to be,” said Black Hawk defenceman Doug Wilson. “Well, we haven’t seen any of that. Maybe they needed some hardships to mature. I don’t want to say it’s class, but it certainly is maturity.”

That newfound maturity will be put to its toughest test this week in the Cup final. The Islanders respect the only team between themselves and what they see as immortality but they do not lack confidence in themselves. Even af-

ter their relatively poor regular season, the Islanders still finished sixth in the league and have moved briskly through the playoffs against Washington, New York Rangers in a bitter six-game crosstown series, and the Boston Bruins, who finished the regular season atop the league. That was a much tougher route than Edmonton took to the final, but the Islanders have played more games and the Oilers have had a week off. On the other hand, of course, Edmonton remains a young team and a week is a time enough to get nervous. That, however, is just what the Oilers think they have managed to eliminate from their makeup. The Islanders will need all of their vaunted discipline to keep the swift-skating Oilers in check.

For their part, the Oilers thought it was entirely appropriate that they face the Islanders. Moments after eliminating the Hawks, Glen Sather’s voice carried down the corridor in Chicago Stadium: “When

you are a championship team, you should beat the champions.” And typically, Edmonton has a few records ripe for the plucking, as well as the Cup itself.

Number 99 is only one point away from Mike Bossy’s Stanley Cup record of 35 points in a playoff season. A measure of change in hockey is that Frank Mahovlich and Phil Esposito shared the record with 27 points as recently as 1980. And already claiming an unprecedented 11-1 playoff g record, the Oilers need ï only 17 more goals to set * a new team scoring I record.

“Four years in the league,” mused Oiler captain Lee Fogolin. “Over the four years it

seemed like such a long time. But today it seems so short. All the critics said we couldn’t play playoff hockey and make it all the way to the Stanley Cup final. Well, here we are. And now people are saying it’s been a long time since they’ve seen a team play like this one.” In fact, never has an NHL entry played so effectively on offence. Many Canadians have concluded that there is no more fitting team to return the Cup to Canada. Certainly there is none with a better chance.

With Terry Jones in Edmonton.